New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CIANCIOLA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-009-101, Claim No. 94634


Synopsis


The Court found the State liable for injuries sustained by claimant in a traffic accident, based upon its failure to properly implement its road design plan by failing to install a speed advisory sign as mandated by the plan. The Court apportioned 75% liability against the defendant and 25% against claimant.

Case Information

UID:
2002-009-101
Claimant(s):
NATHAN CIANCIOLA
Claimant short name:
CIANCIOLA
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
94634
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY, JR.
Claimant's attorney:
MICHAEL D. CALARCO, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General
BY: Roger B. Williams, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 26, 2002
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Decision
Claimant seeks damages for injuries sustained in a traffic accident on June 2, 1996, when the motorcycle he was operating struck the curb on the outer edge of New York State Route 31 in the Hamlet of Savannah in Wayne County, New York. Claimant contends that the defendant was negligent in failing to properly implement its road design plan for this highway, which required specific signage to alert drivers of a sharp curve in the road, which claimant failed to safely negotiate.

The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision deals solely with the issue of liability.

Claimant, Nathan Cianciola, was injured on June 2, 1996, when the motorcycle he was operating left the road after it struck the curb which formed the edge of Route 31 in the Hamlet of Savannah. The accident occurred on a Sunday evening at approximately 6:00 p.m., as claimant was proceeding westerly on Route 31 to his home in Sodus. The weather was not a factor in this incident, since it was clear and sunny, and the pavement was dry.

Claimant was riding his 1980 Yamaha 850 Heritage Special motorcycle at the time. Claimant had owned this motorcycle for approximately one and one-half years prior to the accident, and by his testimony considered himself to be a recreational motorcycle operator.

Claimant testified that on that evening, he was proceeding westerly on Route 31 at approximately 55 miles per hour, the posted speed limit. As he approached the Hamlet of Savannah, he observed a "Speed Zone Ahead" sign and then a "30 MPH" speed limit sign as he entered the hamlet. He reduced his speed accordingly, and approximately 100 feet later, observed a "90 degree left-curve" sign. He testified that in anticipation of the curve, he down-shifted his motorcycle from fourth to third gear, and applied his front brake. He then testified that as he approached the curve, he realized that his speed was too fast for the severity of the curve, and he therefore drove to the right of the highway in an attempt to keep control of his vehicle. However, as he struck the curb, he lost control, and he was pitched forward, off his motorcycle, resulting in his injuries.

Claimant also testified that he had never traveled on this portion of Route 31 prior to this date.

In the mid-1980's, Route 31 in this area had been the subject of a State Department of Transportation Bridge Rehabilitation Project. The original design plan called for a straightening of the sharp curve which existed at the point of the accident. This plan, however, could not be fully implemented unless several historical structures were razed. Therefore, after consideration of environmental, social, and economic factors such as these, a decision was made to retain the tight curve, although it was reconstructed with a longer radius (from a 180 foot radius to a 200 foot radius). The highway was widened, although the number of driving lanes (two) remained the same, and curbing was placed through the hamlet. However, the final plans did require that a "25 MPH" advisory speed panel be placed, below the 90 degree left curve sign on the same post, so as to warn approaching motorists. John Fietze, a Department of Transportation engineer involved with the creation of the project plan, testified that the placement of this speed advisory sign was not discretionary, but was mandated by the final design plans.

Testimony further established, however, that this speed advisory sign was not present on the date of the accident.

Undeniably, the State has a non-delegable duty to design, construct and maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition (
Friedman v State of New York, 67 NY2d 271). This non-delegable duty is broad enough to encompass an obligation on the part of the State to properly post, maintain and position signs along a State highway, designed to warn motorists of conditions and hazards which may lie ahead (Merrill Transp. Co. v State of New York, 97 AD2d 921). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its highways, and the mere occurrence of an accident on a State highway does not necessarily render the State liable (Hearn v State of New York, 157 AD2d 883, lv denied, 75 NY2d 710). In order to establish liability, a claimant must prove: 1) that a duty was owed to claimant; 2) that a breach of that duty occurred; and 3) that such breach proximately caused the injuries to the claimant (Solomon v City of New York, 66 NY2d 1026). Additionally, before negligence can be found, claimant must establish either that the State created or had actual or constructive notice of the existence of an unsafe or dangerous condition and then failed to take reasonable measures to remedy that condition (Brooks v New York State Thruway Auth., 73 AD2d 767, affd 51 NY2d 892).
In this case, it is undisputed that the "25 MPH" speed advisory panel was not in place on the date of the accident. Various witnesses, with personal knowledge of the accident scene, all testified that they had no recollection of ever noticing such an advisory sign having been placed with the curve warning sign. This testimony has established, to the satisfaction of the Court, that the speed advisory sign was never properly posted by the State during its reconstruction project in the mid-1980's. Quite simply, the State failed to properly follow and implement its own plan by failing to place the "25 MPH" advisory speed panel as it was required to do (see, MUTCD W9-1X; and see, 7 NYCRR § 239.1).

Based on the foregoing, the Court also finds that the State had a duty to provide the general public with this precautionary "25 MPH" speed advisory sign, as it was mandated to do by virtue of the design plans that it had adopted. The Court further finds that the State breached this duty when it failed to post and maintain this sign, as required by its construction plans.

Having determined the issue of negligence against the State, the Court must next consider whether this negligence in failing to implement its design plan was a proximate cause of the accident in question.

Proximate causation in essence means a substantial factor causing an event. Liability may only be imposed against the State in a case such as this when the proof shows that the injuries resulted, in whole or in part, by a cause for which the defendant is responsible (
Pontello v County of Onondaga, 94 AD2d 427, lv dismissed 60 NY2d 560). As such, it is claimant's burden to establish that the missing sign was a substantial factor in the sequence of events that led to the injury (Nallan v Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 50 NY2d 507).
It is the position of the State that the absence of this speed advisory sign had no bearing whatsoever on this accident, which it instead attributes to claimant's excessive speed as he entered the hamlet, and his failure to perceive the upcoming curve, which should have been readily apparent to him. In support of its position, defendant points to the testimony of witnesses such as Deputy Montemorano, who testified that he had driven his motorcycle through this curve on many occasions at 30 miles per hour without incident.

This Court, however, finds that the testimony presented by claimant established to the satisfaction of the Court that claimant would have reduced his speed in response to a "25 MPH" advisory speed sign, if one had been posted. Claimant impressed the Court as a responsible adult who complied with road markings and vehicle traffic laws while operating his motorcycle. The Court believes that claimant had slowed his vehicle to the 30 mile per hour speed limit in accordance with the posted signs as he entered the Hamlet of Savannah, and claimant's expert testified that claimant was driving at approximately 30 miles per hour at the time of the accident. There was nothing to indicate that claimant would not have further reduced his speed to comply with an advisory speed sign had the State in fact installed the sign in accordance with its own plan. Furthermore, there is also no question that this was a sharp, and potentially hazardous, curve, even after the reconstruction project was completed in the mid-1980's.

Accordingly, the Court concludes that the failure of the State to provide the claimant and other motorists similarly situated with the speed advisory sign was in fact a proximate cause of this accident.

In sum, and based upon the proof at trial, the Court is satisfied that claimant has established that the State negligently failed to post and/or maintain at the proper location the "25 MPH" speed advisory sign as it was required to do by its own plan. There can be no question that the State was aware of this dangerous condition, since its plan addressed this known danger by requiring the placement of the speed advisory sign. The failure to adequately post and/or maintain the speed advisory sign constituted a breach of the State's duty owed to claimant. The Court has also concluded that this breach proximately caused the injuries to the claimant herein.

The Court must therefore determine the comparative negligence, if any, of the claimant. Claimant candidly admitted in his testimony that he was inexperienced in operating his motorcycle, which leads the Court to conclude that some of the liability for the accident must rest with him. Claimant testified that he was a recreational operator, and had not been operating a motorcycle for a long period of time. While the Court was impressed with claimant's honest testimony regarding his lack of experience in the operation of his motorcycle, the Court is also convinced that claimant lacked the experience to adequately respond to the situation which confronted him as he approached this sharp curve. Accordingly, claimant must be held proportionateley accountable for the accident and resulting injuries which occurred.

After due consideration and a review of all the evidence presented at trial, the Court finds that liability should be apportioned 75% against the defendant State of New York and 25% against the claimant herein.

Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.

The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on the issue of liability in accordance with this Decision. The Court will set this matter down for a trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.


June 26, 2002
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY, JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims